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A guide for separated parents this Christmas

Family breakdown is never easy, but Christmas can be a particularly difficult time for separated parents, and most importantly for the children of the family. There is an unrealistic expectation on families that Christmas should be perfect and this often leads to feelings of anger, frustration and upset when that “perfect” Christmas cannot be made into a reality. Arguments can ensue over where the children will be on Christmas day, disagreements about whether new partners should be spending time with the children at Christmas and not to mention the worry of money.

The 25th December is traditionally the day when the children will awake to open their Christmas presents and enjoy a festive dinner with the whole family. However, for separated families it is not quite that simple and discussions need to be had as early as possible about how this festive time should be shared between two households.

There is no formulae for arrangements at Christmas and it very much depends on what works for the family concerned, which could be based on how far away the parents live from one and other, whether there are any half-siblings to consider and the work commitments of the parents. Below are just some examples of the type of arrangements separated parents may agree with to deal with sharing the Christmas holidays…

“I’ll have Christmas Day and you have Boxing Day”

This arrangement is one which works for many families who don’t get too caught up on the perceived importance of the 25th December. The children may spend Christmas Eve with one parent, enjoy festivities with that parent on Christmas Day with a handover later in the evening so that the children get to wake up on Boxing Day with the other parent and do it all over again! This can often also work well when there are half-siblings to consider who may also spend either Christmas Day or Boxing Day with the parent and the children.

“Let’s split Christmas Day”

Where parents believe it is important for the children that they are able to spend quality time with both parents on Christmas Day they may decide to divide the day in half so that the children wake up with one parent on Christmas Day morning and the other parent may then collect them around lunchtime and have Christmas dinner with the children.

“The alternate arrangement”

Parents may decide that the only fair way to share Christmas is to alternate the arrangements each year so that the children get to experience all aspects of Christmas with each parent on an alternate yearly basis.

As I have said above, there is no right or wrong approach to arrangements for Christmas. If arrangements for Christmas cannot be agreed then either parent may make an application to Court for a specific issue order or as part of a child arrangements order. The judge or more likely a panel of magistrates will consider the application which is governed by the Children Act 1989 and in particular the welfare checklist; the child’s welfare being the Court’s paramount consideration. In most cases brought before the Court on the issue of Christmas, neither parent will be alleging risk of harm to the child but they will simply have differing views as to the time each parent should spend with the children during the Christmas holidays. The Court will consider the individual circumstances of the case and will make a decision. In these cases, there is great uncertainty and also risk for both parents who may not get the outcome that they want, and instead they may end up with an outcome which neither parent set out to achieve.

When it comes to arrangements for Christmas, the Court would much prefer families to work out arrangements between themselves, whether directly or through the process of family mediation. Either parent can make a referral to family mediation to resolve arrangements for children, including the Christmas holidays. The family mediators will arrange to see each parent separately to assess willingness and also to assess whether mediation is suitable. If both parties are willing and the mediator has assessed it suitable, they will arrange for the parents to come back together for a joint session round a table with the trained mediator who will facilitate the discussions between the parties and encourage agreement where possible. Where appropriate, the children can also be spoken to within the mediation process.

As the saying goes, prevention is often better than the cure and here are some tips which may help you avoid getting into an acrimonious dispute with your ex-partner this Christmas…

  • Talk to your ex-partner about arrangements for Christmas as far in advance as possible. Neither of you need the stress of trying to sort arrangements at the last minute and it is only likely to heighten tensions between you which will cause the children to be anxious about Christmas;
  • Once you have worked out arrangements with your ex-partner communicate these with the children in order to show a united front and reduce any worry the children may have about splitting their time between parents at Christmas;
  • Try not to compare this Christmas with how Christmas was before the separation. You are entering a whole new world and change can be positive;
  • It’s important to put on a positive front for the children, but don’t bottle up your own feelings. It might be useful to speak with a family member, friend or a family therapist about how you feel;
  • Try not to control your ex-partner’s time with the children. Imagine how you would feel if they were dictating your time with the children. As a parent, they are responsible for making appropriate arrangements for the children, as are you. Unless, the children are at risk of harm, you should trust your ex-partner’s judgement on his/her plans with the children;
  • You can’t please everyone. Do what you think will be best for the children and don’t feel pressured to please others around you to your and the children’s detriment;
  • Remember money can’t buy love – don’t feel pressured into buying presents you can’t afford, set a budget and don’t try to compete with the other parent. The children will be more concerned about having a happy and relaxed time with you both at Christmas;
  • Make it clear to your family that things will be done differently this year but that they are to be positive about the new arrangements in front of both you and the children;
  • You may have other issues to resolve with your ex-partner aside from Christmas including issues as to finances, if at all possible avoid getting into a dispute about these issues at Christmas. Christmas is stressful enough and it might be sensible to wait until the New Year before addressing these issues with your ex-partner.

If you are currently having difficulties with your ex-partner about arrangements this Christmas and you would like some legal advice, or you are considering making a referral to family mediation, please contact Laura Clapton on 0113 357 1318 or at